The problem with transformational leadership - new research

The problem with transformational leadership – new research

transformational leadership and cynicism

A lot of organisational change research over the last 20 to 30 years has focused on issues around transformational leadership and the ability of transformational leaders to have a positive impact on organisational culture to effect organisational change. However when transformational leaders meet cynicism…

(This research briefing was sent to members in 2019)

Variable outcomes of transformational leaders

Many studies over the years have shown that the relationship between organisational leaders and their followers/employees is a key facet in shaping the organisational culture. More recently, studies have shown that there is significant variance in the outcomes of leaders displaying transformational behaviours in terms of cultural change and organisational change. Given that the primary idea and motive behind transformational leadership is change or transformation, finding the causes of this variance is rapidly becoming an important area of research.

Transformational leadership
Transformational leadership

What impacts the ability of a transformational leader to create change?

The range of factors research has found that impact the relationship between leadership and change include:

  • Origin of a new CEO / leader – credibility based
  • The leader’s personality
  • The leader’s social control, emotion regulation capability and expressiveness
  • The leader’s cynicism about organisational change
  • The level of trust people have in the leader
  • The quality of the relationship between the leader and the followers
  • The level of cynicism towards the change climate
  • Perceived communication effectiveness by the senior management
  • The level of consultation and authenticity of the consultation with employees
  • Level of cultural support for creative thinking and goal clarity
  • Leadership charisma and the impact that has on levels of trust
  • Perceptions of organisational and interpersonal justice across the organisation
  • Followers’ openness to change
  • The general commitment to change across the organisation
  • Emotion contagion – both positive and negative affect or emotion
  • General organisational commitment
  • General employee adaptivity and productivity
  • Creative and innovative behaviours
  • Organisational justice and the experience of threat during change
  • Dispositional resistance to change – or general inclination towards resisting change anyway
  • Change frequency
  • Change magnitude
  • General level of organisational citizenship behaviours experience within the organisation
  • Leaders and employees meaning making, especially through storytelling
  • Leadership effectiveness generally

Cynicism is a big problem for transformational leaders

However, one factor which is showing up again and again in studies over the last 4 or 5 years or so as having a strong predictor on the outcome of transformational leadership, is that of cynicism about organisational change.


What happens when a transformational leader meets cynicism?

Transformational leadership and change

As can be seen from the list of factors that impact the effectiveness of organisational change above, the role of the leadership in predicting the effectiveness of organisational change is highly significant.

A number of studies have shown that leaders, and in particular transformational leaders, have both direct and indirect influence on employees’ attitudes generally and employees’ attitudes towards change, in particular. Indeed, one of the central roles of the transformational leader is to build change capacity and openness to change across the employee base.

The research has found that engaging employees with change directly and increasing the level of employee intellectual stimulation around change and revolution can have a particularly motivational effect. In effect, the role of transformational leaders is to increase positive employee attitudes towards change and, thereby, develop a commitment towards change…. however…


The problem of cynicism about organisational change

Cynicism about organisational change refers to a negative set of outlooks, beliefs and values about organisational change in particular and has been found to have two elements:

  1. Pessimism about the impact and outcomes of organisational changes generally or within a specific context (within a particular organisation or with particular managers and leaders or functions, like human resources and organisational development, for example).
  2. An element of blame towards those instigating change and a lack of belief in their ability to conduct effective change.


Cynicism and motivation

Cynicism towards organisational change has been found to have a direct negative motivational impact on employees to engage in change projects and may even extend to the extent of sabotaging change programmes.


Research about the impact of cynicism

Cynicism about organisational change really started to spark research and organisational interest after the publication of a seminal series of papers by Wanous, Reichers, & Austin between 1994 and 1997. This work stemmed from previous studies looking at organisational commitment.


Beliefs about change

More recently, it has been found that the organisational culture, in terms of the general set of:

  • beliefs
  • values
  • attitudes
  • behaviours

people experience within the organisation has a direct and significant impact on the ability of a transformational leader to actually effect change.

Access to the culture to understand the level cynicism

As a result of much of this work, researchers and practitioners have focused on culture as a predictor of successful organisational change. This means that leaders need to not only understand the current culture, including gaining access to cultural aspects that tend to be hidden from the leadership, in order to firstly understand what levels of change cynicism exist within the culture, but also to understand how to transform any cultural change cynicism into a more change positive environment.

In short, cynicism about organisational change has been found to be a prime arbiter of whether transformational leadership will actually result in the changes required.

Organisational change

Transforming cynicism about organisational change

A number of recent studies (2011 to 2019) have found that there are a series of ingredients that can help deal with cynicism about organisational change, such as:

  1. Ensuring that the top management and leadership have an authentic (realistic and honest) and coherent narrative about the need for change
  2. That the middle and junior management:
    1. is brought and bought into this narrative
    2. have developed transformational leadership skills
    3. are concerned with developing closer and better relationships with the employees (leader-manager exchange (LMX) and leader-manager-employee distance/closeness are a key predictor of influence.
  3. Promoting leader innovation orientation
  4. Promoting employee voice and
  5. Employee co-creation around organisational problems
  6. Helping people understand the consequences of a failure to change
  7. Support for individuals at every level of the organisation to encourage employee voice and involvement in the change process (to increase intellectual stimulation and involvement)
  8. Significant retraining and making implementation experts available as the need arises (a number of studies have pointed towards the use of technology to enable near-to-instant access to expertise and advice to increase self-efficacy
  9. Leaders showing that they have a realistic understanding of the challenges being faced by employees


Primary references

Farahnak, L. R., Ehrhart, M. G., Torres, E. M., & Aarons, G. A. (2019). The Influence of Transformational Leadership and Leader Attitudes on Subordinate Attitudes and Implementation Success. Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies.

Hartge, T., Callahan, T., & King, C. (2019). Leaders’ behaviors during radical change processes: Subordinates’ perceptions of how well leader behaviors communicate change. International Journal of Business Communication56(1), 100-121.

Jiang, Z., Hu, X., Wang, Z., & Jiang, X. (2019). Knowledge hiding as a barrier to thriving: The mediating role of psychological safety and moderating role of organizational cynicism. Journal of Organizational Behavior.

Malodia, L., & Vashisht, A. (2019). Examining the Impact of Positive Psychological Capital in Reducing Cynicism. International Journal of Hospitality & Tourism Systems, 12(1).

Rahman, Z., & Hadi, H. K. (2019). Does Organizational Culture Matters in Organizational Change? Transformational Leadership and Cynicism About Organizational Change. KnE Social Sciences3(11), 353-362.

Singh, A. (2019). Role of Transformational Leadership in Enhancing Employee Engagement: Evolving Issues and Direction for Future Research through Literature Review. Available at SSRN 3316331.

Toheed, H., Turi, J. A., Ramay, M. I., Panasiuk, A., & Ostańska, P. (2019). Exploring the Consequences of Organizational Cynicism. International Journal of European Studies3(1), 1.

Oreg, S., & Berson, Y. (2019). Leaders’ Impact on Organizational Change: Bridging Theoretical and Methodological Chasms. Academy of Management Annals13(1), 272-307.

Secondary references

Aarons, G. A., Ehrhart, M. G., Farahnak, L. R., & Hurlburt, M. S. (2015). Leadership and organizational change for imple- mentation (LOCI): A randomized mixed method pilot study of a leadership and organization development intervention for evidence-based practice implementation. Implementation Science, 10(1), 11. doi:10.1186/s13012-014-0192-y

Reichers, A. E., Wanous, J. P., & Austin, J. T. (1997). Understanding and managing cynicism about organizational change. Academy of management perspectives, 11(1), 48-59.

Stetler, C. B., Ritchie, J. A., Rycroft-Malone, J., & Charns, M. P. (2014). Leadership for evidence-based practice: Strategic and functional behaviors for institutionalizing EBP. Worldviews on Evidence-Based Nursing, 11, 219-226.

Wanous, J. P., Reichers, A. E., & Austin, J. T. (1994, August). Organizational Cynicism: An Initial Study. In Academy of Management Proceedings (Vol. 1994, No. 1, pp. 269-273). Briarcliff Manor, NY 10510: Academy of Management.

Warrick, D. D. (2017). What leaders need to know about organizational culture. Business Horizons60(3), 395-404.

Be impressively well informed

Get the very latest research intelligence briefings, video research briefings, infographics and more sent direct to you as they are published

Be the most impressively well-informed and up-to-date person around...

Powered by ConvertKit
Like what you see? Help us spread the word

David Wilkinson

David Wilkinson is the Editor-in-Chief of the Oxford Review. He is also acknowledged to be one of the world's leading experts in dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty and developing emotional resilience. David teaches and conducts research at a number of universities including the University of Oxford, Medical Sciences Division, Cardiff University, Oxford Brookes University School of Business and many more. He has worked with many organisations as a consultant and executive coach including Schroders, where he coaches and runs their leadership and management programmes, Royal Mail, Aimia, Hyundai, The RAF, The Pentagon, the governments of the UK, US, Saudi, Oman and the Yemen for example. In 2010 he developed the world's first and only model and programme for developing emotional resilience across entire populations and organisations which has since become known as the Fear to Flow model which is the subject of his next book. In 2012 he drove a 1973 VW across six countries in Southern Africa whilst collecting money for charity and conducting on the ground charity work including developing emotional literature in children and orphans in Africa and a number of other activities. He is the author of The Ambiguity Advanatage: What great leaders are great at, published by Palgrave Macmillian. See more: About: About David Wikipedia: David's Wikipedia Page